Summary: There are four steps in healing broken or damaged relationships within the church body: always be gentle, always use caution, always evaluate yourself, and always have compassion.
It Pays to Sweat the Small Stuff
July 8, 2005
Our son Chris was about 15 years old when he came stumbling in the house one summer day with his face screwed up in pain. He was holding his right arm tight to his chest and all he could gasp was, “I fell off my bike.”
We got his shirt off and immediately saw his collarbone jutting up about an inch high under his skin. We headed off for the emergency room and after x-rays; the doctor came out to tell us that he had dislocated his collarbone. The doctor had popped it back into place, but said that it was going to be really sore for a while. When we looked at it, we saw that it was swollen and was several interesting shades of purple. It was quite a while before Chris was jumping his bike over obstacles again.
Toni went skydiving a few years ago and dislocated her ankle when she landed. I remember being in the emergency room when the doctor said that he was going to pop it back into place. I asked him to let me know when he did it so I could leave the room. That wasn’t something I wanted to hang around for. I remember asking Toni if she thought I was a wimp. She said no. In fact, she said, if it were you laying here, I probably wouldn’t stay either.
Alan Kimber is pastor of First United Methodist Church in Lodi, California and he says that dissension and conflict among church people can be just as painful as a dislocation. He says that perhaps that is why churches oftentimes prefer an amputation to a dislocation. That way, when we are facing dissension or conflict, we can cut the problem out without having to deal with the long term consequences or the underlying causes.
One of my classmates when I was over at Ashland was a pastor (I don’t remember the denomination) from Cheyenne, Wyoming. He and I were so different. Our personalities were like night and day. Our leadership styles are miles apart. He did things in his church that I would never try (or for that matter be allowed to do by the Discipline of the United Methodist Church).
One day during a break in classes, he told me that he had just removed two people from the rolls of the church he was serving for some sort of breach of church discipline. I pushed him on it a little bit. Surely he didn’t mean that he did it all by himself. Surely there were some lay people involved. But no, he decided that they weren’t the sort of people who should be members of that church (I don’t remember the reasons) so he removed them.
I realize that church polity is different from church to church and denomination to denomination and pastors are given different levels of authority in each. I know that he was acting according to his own conscience. I also realize that I didn’t know the whole story. I know that my friend is a good pastor. But I remember thinking that it was a little sad that such a drastic action was taken without significant effort at effecting reconciliation.
Every United Methodist pastor in the world can tell you a story of one very difficult appointment. Sometimes pastors and churches, for whatever reason, just struggle to get along. I have my own story. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, I realize that at this particular appointment I mishandled some issues. I was a fairly young pastor and was a little unprepared for an assignment like the one I had been given.
On the other hand, again with the luxury of hindsight, the church has to share some of the blame for our difficult relationship. That is the way it always is. There are always enough mistakes on both sides of a controversy to go around.
I met with a couple of district superintendents to try to figure out a way forward. Together we decided that it would do no good to, in the words of one DS, “move the furniture.” In other words, changing pastors in the midst of the controversy wouldn’t really solve the underlying problems that had existed for quite some time. So it was decided to bring in a mediator to work with both pastor and congregation to address the root causes of the conflict.
I always chuckle when I hear some folks say that they quit going to church because the church is full of hypocrites. When I am feeling like a smart-alick, I say, “There’s always room for one more.” Of course the church is full of hypocrites because it’s full of people like me…and you. We’re not always easy to get along with. We don’t always react to each other out of love. We don’t always think before we speak. We don’t always rise above the temptation to be petty. We don’t always give each other the benefit of the doubt. We aren’t always able to put our own egos in check. We are not always able to rise above our own agendas. Sometimes it hurts to be the church because the church is full of sinners.